As an Asian woman who grew up in Tottenham with first generation parents, I often used to think that the phrase ‘I don’t see colour’ was a way of expressing the belief that everyone should be treated equally, that it was used by well-meaning (white) people to reassure others (or more likely themselves) that they are not racially prejudiced. As good as their intentions may be, this phrase can be highly damaging - especially when addressing the issues of diversity and inclusion.
This is because the phrase ‘I don’t see colour’ is also frequently used as a tactic for avoiding feelings of discomfort stirred up (usually in white people) by the topic of race. By saying “I don’t see colour”, they’re really saying “Let’s not make race an issue by acknowledging it as one.”.
If you don’t see colour, you don’t see the challenges faced by people of colour - so how can issues of racism be addressed?
Being in a position where you are fortunate enough to go through life not ‘seeing’ or considering the topic of colour or racial identity at all, is pretty much the definition of white privilege. You probably don’t need to deal with questions like:
- ‘Will I get stopped by the police today for no reason?’
- 'Why is there no one in the leadership team of my company who looks like me?'
- ’Even though I’m the most qualified person here, will people think I am just a diversity hire?
- ‘Why did the security guard ask me to take the back entrance?’
By claiming to not see colour, you’re intentionally blocking out the fundamental issues that exist when it comes to race. It comes across as 'I don't see you' - as while your intentions may be good, erasing part of someone's identity means you're not truly recognising their reality.
If you are white, you’ve probably never considered your own racial identity - because you likely never had to.
If you are white, you may not feel you have a pronounced racial identity - which is the root cause of this issue. History being the way it is means that systems have been built around and for the white majority, as ‘default’ (one simple example being the meaning of “nude” lipstick or clothing) - in the same way the world’s built around and for able-bodied people rather disabled people, or straight couples rather than gay couples, or men rather women.
Which means anyone who is ‘different’ to that defined norm is the one that gets a racial label. So in the Western world, those from non-white backgrounds or people of colour have had to develop a defined racial idenitity. The systems are so built into the fabric of everyday existence that, if you’re white, you may have never needed to have a strong racial identity - because you never faced issues because of your race.
What to do instead of saying ‘I don’t see colour’?
Instead of claiming that you don’t see colour, start to think about some of the ways in which people of colour do have unique and real struggles.
In order to address issues around race, and work towards building true equality, you need to see and hear people of colour. Take the time to listen to their stories, and unique life experiences. Think about some of the unconscious biases or stereotypes you might hold about different people of colour.
Bonus points: if you’re white, start to think about your own racial identity - because yes, you do have one. Consider how this may have served you in your life, and what your own contribution could be to developing a world when we truly don’t need to see colour - because we are all truly treated equally.